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Introduction to Special Collections

What is Special Collections?

Special Collections is a department within the University of Delaware Library that collects, preserves and makes accessible rare and unique materials such as:

  • Rare Books - books that are valuable, significant and scarce.
  • Artists' Books - works of art in the form of a book.
  • Fine Press Books - books printed by relatively small, high quality, private publishing companies.
  • Manuscripts - a wide range of unpublished materials--such as handwritten and typed letters, documents, photographs, drawings, rough drafts, or maps--that are of personal, political, and cultural importance with enduring research value. 
  • Archives - records created or received by a person, family, or organization and preserved because of their enduring value. These primary sources are available in various formats, from documents to scrapbooks to contemporary digital images or email.

Primary versus Secondary Source

Primary Source - material that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness. (Online Glossary of Archival Terms, Society of American Archivists)

A few examples of primary source materials:

Manuscript page from MSS 0099, 0491

("manu"= hand, "script"=written)




Graphic Materials
(e.g. photographs, drawings, etc.)

Cover of Centennial Scrapbook


Cover of Charles Howell diary


Preview image of file

Audio/Visual Materials
(e.g. film, audio recordings, etc.)

Secondary Source - 1. A work that is not based on direct observation of or evidence directly associated with the subject, but instead relies on sources of information. – 2. A work commenting on another work (primary sources), such as reviews, criticism, and commentaries. (Online Glossary of Archival Terms, Society of American Archivists)

A few examples of Secondary Source materials:

  • Journal/magazine articles
  • Textbooks
  • Books that contain histories, criticisms or commentaries

Can a book be a primary source?

Yes, a book can be a primary source.

Determining whether a source is a primary source often depends on the questions asked of it by the researcher.

For example...

A history text from the 1950s about the rise of Catholicism in America is usually considered a secondary source. However, a researcher investigating prevailing attitudes about religion in the 1950s may consider this work a primary source.